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  • Writer's pictureColleen Nelson

Tired of Networking? Build Your Community Instead

Updated: Dec 8, 2022

Business professionals are encouraged to build their networks. I have seen this over the years in my career through applications like LinkedIn, networking events, and time for networking time scheduled during conferences. Get the business card, share the elevator pitch, add them to your contacts, move to the next. This approach has worked for others, and they have found remarkable success through this approach. If it works for your, keep going.

It has not worked for me. I find it draining and disingenuous. Rather than building a network it is far more important to build communities. I enjoy meeting with people beyond a work assignment and getting to know their whole story. I enjoy bringing people together who have similar interests, values, and skills. It is not the social aspect that I find draining, it is the getting to know a person only at the surface and then moving to the next.

Often networking events feel like a business version of speed dating. How many people can you meet and share your pitch with? How can you make a lasting impact in 10 – 15-minutes before moving to the next? Even as I listen to others, the moment I start to get into the follow up questions to better understand what is important to them, it is time to end the conversation and move on. Retaining the information, making mental notes of the follow up questions to send in email, and then trying to remember the right person to contact leaves me exhausted. I am also not convinced those speed sessions are meaningful enough to create effective engagements.

A few years ago, I attended a development conference with other high performing professionals in my field. We were encouraged to meet with one another as part of networking time planned during the conference. We all rotated around the room like a spinning roulette wheel bouncing our attention from one another like the ball does until the wheel spun again. Business cards were exchanged. Pitches shared. Follow up emails sent.

People added to their digital network. To many this would be considered a successful event.

I knew what the people in that room wanted to do, but I did not know who they were. I knew their goals, but I did not know why they were important to them. I knew their skills that made them qualified to accomplish what they wanted, but I did not know how we could help one another. I was not even sure if we should help one another. And if we did find a way to help one another there should be some transactional give and take tracked on a metrics file.

In my experience using that same amount of time to get to know one to three people in a more holistic perspective is much more meaningful. There are four major differences that I experience in a community versus a network.

Get to know the person

We are more than our job. We bring more to the table than our knowledge and skills in our field. It is possible the person across from you was an athlete in a sport you enjoy. It is possible your experience in charity or non-profit is a shared interest in the other person. It is possible your cultural upbringing is something the other person can relate to allowing them to connect to you in a unique way. It is possible your hobby is something you both have in common. Having a deeper and more meaningful conversation allows you to explore these topics. Encourage conversation that allows you to both be your authentic selves.

Learn why the work is important

People are drawn to work they find worth doing. It could be important because they see it as a step to a bigger problem they want to solve. Their work may be important for a personal reason stemming from a story that will tell you more about who they are. Their work could simply be a means to an end and for them it may feel a bit hallow. I have longer lasting connections with people who have a passion for the work they are doing. This discussion allows you to really explore if you share an interest or can even lend your interest to the other person. This creates a shared experience of learning.

Understand their skills as well as the blind spots

When getting to know someone it is common to share the highlights. It is easier to talk about what skills you have. What you do well. It is much harder to discuss challenges. And we often do not know how to show blind spots. But I find being able to be honest about where I help allows the other person to contribute their knowledge, skills, or resources that may be able to solve that challenge. The reverse is true. When I know where the other person has a blind spot or a potential challenge, I am now able to contribute to their mission in a meaningful way. Being able to pair strengths through collaboration ensures mutual success.

Make it safe to be vulnerable

This theme is evident in the three points above. However, I find it so important it can stand on its own. We are often taught as professionals to never let them see you sweat. We are encouraged to be strong, independent, and at times assertive about our ability to be successful. It takes me two to three sets of probing questions to encourage the other person to let down their guard enough to be vulnerable. When that wall comes down the free flow of thought really opens open. Brainstorming becomes easier. Their answers and responses become more open and detailed. There is a new level of trust and respect that comes from safer vulnerability that is necessary to build a sense of community.

In a community there is shared learning through collaboration. There is a sense that giving to one another is an unconditional gift rather than a transaction. Each member of a community feels good contributing what they can offer because they are part of something bigger than themselves. Share knowledge, shared skills, shared talents are all part of the benefit in a successful community.

Recently I have been part of a community that hosts events to develop young leaders. As they are brought together, they are broken out in small groups then giving a project to create together. Through this shared work they begin to learn more about one another. They have meaningful dialogue with one another. I have found many of them help each other with interests outside the project. They are learning to build lifelong relationships that will be part of their community. We grow stronger when we grow together.

Today, I have adjusted the people on my LinkedIn profile to only include those I consider part of my community. These are people I know, can advocate for, and have shared experiences with beyond the 10 – 15-minute elevator pitch. I am happy to say these are all people I feel confident being vulnerable with as they have participated in my growth and me in theirs.

I am not looking for people to frow my network. Would you join my community to grow your knowledge, skills, and talents? Who would you include in your community?

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